How Richard Branson started Virgin Atlantic with a blackboard selling $39 flights


A canceled flight, in many of us, inspires frustration and anger. And for billionaire Richard Branson, it’s no different.

Only when the British entrepreneur was met with a cancelled flight in the early 80s, it inspired another response, too: A new business idea.

Branson — already a successful businessman, having formed Virgin Records some years earlier — was due to fly to the British Virgin Islands to be reunited with a “lovely lady” on his private Necker Island, when his American Airlines flight was suddenly cancelled.

“I was livid because I hadn’t seen her for three weeks,” Branson recalled in an interview with CNBC for “The Brave Ones” podcast.

So, he did as all good entrepreneurs do, and looked for a solution.

The next day I rang up Boeing and said … I’m thinking of starting an airline

Richard Branson

Virgin Group

The then 30-something marched to the back of the airport, gave them his credit card — “hoping it wouldn’t bounce” — and hired a plane.

He then borrowed a blackboard, wrote “as a joke, Virgin Airlines one-way: $39 to the Virgin Islands,” and filled up the flight with all the bumped passengers, he said.

“(When) we arrived in the BVI, somebody said ‘sharpen up your service a bit and you could be in the airline business,'” Branson recalled.

Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson.

Craig Barritt

“So the next day I rang up Boeing and said: ‘I’ve just had a bad experience and I’m thinking of starting an airline called Virgin. Do you have any secondhand 747s for sale?'”

The rest, as they say, is history. Shortly afterwards, a Boeing representative named RJ Wilson met with Branson to discuss his airline ambitions.

Wilson was not convinced by the name Virgin.

But he was convinced by Branson, and agreed to lease him the secondhand 747 aircraft for a year while he tried to get the business off the ground.

“I think that (was) the thing that put Virgin on the map,” said Branson, who launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984.

“We took on British Airways, PanAm, TWA with their hundreds of planes.”

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